Patricia Greenfield, Director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at UCLA, was the second of three opening keynote speakers at the Learning & the Brain Conference. Well, she was the second speaker for the vast majority of us who were in the grand ballroom. This conference was so packed that there was an overflow room for each day’s keynotes. Initially my colleague (who was part of the overflow) and I thought that the keynote talks would be lived streamed to the overflow room. Instead, PIRI did something that I thought was rather clever – they circulated the three speakers through the ballroom and overflow room, so that everyone heard and saw a live talk. Perhaps more work for the speakers, but rather respectful of the attendees!
Greenfield discussed New Media, Multitasking and Education: The Effects of Technology on Learning. She pointed to three types of multitasking:
- within a single medium (viewing multiple screens/windows on a computer or television)
- between two or more media (such as a computer and a cell phone)
- between media and real life (such as a kid texting while you are talking to them)
and noted that multitasking, in general, has both pros and cons. The benefits relate to work or career skills, where it may be helpful to juggle multiple tasks, such as is done by air traffic controllers or movie producers.The costs relate to possible negative impact on both cognitive skills, and social and emotional skills.
She related an experiment done with college students where they viewed CNN news broadcasts with and without the news crawl going across the screen. It turned out that the students retained more of the news when there was no crawl. I asked my 18 and a half year old about the news crawl, and he said he finds it highly distracting, as do I. (Has anyone in the States noticed the number of highway gas station stops that now have large television screens playing at the pumps? I find them highly distracting and irritating!)
I was particularly interested in Greenfield’s comment that “reading counteracts the cognitive cost of media multitasking”, and that “out-of-class reading during the college years is a statistical predictor of critical thinking skills.” This made me wonder about reading in general, and how secondary schools tend to assign so much content area reading that there is precious little time for students to read for the pure joy of reading. [UPDATE: Related NPR story: Reading Practice Can Strengthen Brain 'Highways'.]
The 448 pages of conference proceedings are packaged in a spiral bound book, one of the treasured benefits of full registration, as it provides information about all of the conference sessions. Included in the book are two articles related to Greenfield’s presentation, both available on UCLA’s Media Center site: Technology and Informal Education: What Is taught, What Is Learned, by Greenfield and Are We Losing Our Ability to Think Critically?, by Samuel Greengard.
In my early years of teaching I prided myself on being able to multitask while responding to questions from multiple people at the same time. With age has come the realization that I am no longer as facile with multi-responding, and trying to multi-respond actually makes me less effective. Indeed, that realization could be one answer to a question posed by Greenfield: Could each task have been done better if done alone? In a January post earlier this year I explored the idea of multitasking and it provoked an interesting discussion in the comments.
[UPDATE: Here is an interesting take on multitasking, in which Howard Rheingold asks if there is a happy medium in the middle.]